Go to Homepage  

Survival of the Sneakiest

Ally wasn't happy with Sarah's critique

As soon as Del Rey Books announced the opening of their new and improved writing workshop March 15, every mail list related to science fiction or fantasy I ever heard of went into overdrive. You'd think someone just handed them an entirely new market -- one that afforded aspiring writers the kind of direct access to publishing nirvana hinted at by electronic publishers and print-on-demand.

The Del Rey Digital Writing Workshop offers writers the opportunity to post short stories, book chapters and partials for critique in return for critiquing -- and rating -- the work of others. Occasional features by guest editors such as Terry Brooks and Anne McCaffrey provide additional tips and insight for writers seeking to hone their skills.

Every month, a group of Del Rey editors and writers will highlight three Editor's Choices in the categories of SF novel, fantasy novel and short stories. Twice a year, the editors' selections will be posted in the Digital Gallery, where workshop participants and the general public can vote on their favorites. The winners get a chance at publication by Del Rey.

Before it closed its electronic doors, the original Del Rey workshop encompassed more than 8,000 participants. Basing chances for publication entirely on the ratings of the participant writers, the workshop also boasted more cutthroat competition than Survivor.

No one can question the good intentions of Brooks, McCaffrey and the other published volunteers. They bring to the project a long history of encouraging new writers and boosting the careers of under-appreciated mid-list authors. The participation of Del Rey Discovery author Toni Anzetti marks the first steps of another writer in their distinguished tradition of "giving back" to the field.

Likewise, Del Rey Editorial Director Shelly Shapiro and the entire Del Rey leadership deserve praise for their willingness to explore the opportunities afforded Internet technology to expand the options of pre-published writers. They literally put their hearts and pocketbooks on-line.

But the Survivor analogy is all too apt. Most pre-published writers would sell 80 percent of their relatives, a kidney, a lung and two ounces of brain fluid to be published by a house like Del Rey. A million dollars? Pah! The intense gratification of surviving a diet of bugs to take home the Survivor money bag couldn't possibly compare with the high of a three-book contract against a six-figure advance. You'd lose half the Survivor million to taxes anyway, whereas a clever accountant could cover the contract in deductions based on five years of research.

So which handle did Hatch use? So many participants displayed his tactics. First, search the well-reviewed pieces and compare their ratings to yours. Second, start critiquing the competition on everything from content to format to the names of the characters. Third, persuade your friends to pump your submission at the expense of other submissions plainly not to their taste. Encourage these ringers to rate their least favorite reads accordingly. Conflict of interest is a war you need to win.

Watching the lethal spoiler squadrons sweep across the original Del Rey critique landscape, I wondered how anyone could win the prize -- and what winning the "Great Game" actually meant. Can you base editorial judgments on an electoral process which assumes the candidates will vote against themselves? As the most recent presidential and congressional elections made clear, people do not act against their own interests, even for the good of an entire nation.

Or did Del Rey balance the scales of their original workshop by operating a secondary judging process behind the scenes to ensure all worthy candidates received an unbiased review? And is that the secret of the Editorial Board of "new and improved" workshop opened last month?

Whatever proves to be the case, I wish all the workshop participants and sponsors the very best of luck. They'll need it. Last time, the competitors operated as loners. This time, they're forging national alliances and creating mail lists to improve their chances.

You certainly can't fault their initiative. But for myself, I think I'll start researching CBS's plans for the third season of Survivor. The odds look a lot better -- and so did Hatch's book contract. Sunscreen, anyone?

Jean Marie Ward

Click here to share your views.